Confessions of a rookie wood carver
By Ed. Lange
Trees. If you think about trees for more than a minute, you appreciate how indispensable they have been throughout civilization and remain so every day of our lives. When we list our basic necessities of life: food, shelter, warmth and air, we realize that trees provide all of them. Fruit, nuts and maple syrup; palm huts, cabins and homes; fire and wind-breaks; and they even produce oxygen through photosynthesis. Handy.
As we move up the scale of civilization’s comforts and complexities, we discover that trees have aided us with tools, transportation, communication, music and beauty. Among tree tools are: bowls, bows, arrows and spears for hunting, axe handles for building and eating utensils; tree travel includes dugout canoes, rafts, boats, sledges, travois, fuel for steam engines and the framework of early aircraft; communication comes via drums, smoke signals, telegraph poles and paper; wooden instruments such as flutes and fiddles, lutes, lyres and guitars; and beauty is born both in their natural state and in reshaping their wood into countless crafts and arts.
For the love of trees
But these are only the tip of the seedling. Our woodlands offer homes for birds and animals. Their roots help prevent erosion, their leaves shade and cool us, their forests afford us parks, hiking trails, campgrounds and tranquility. Take a moment to consider the vast variety of trees and their wood. Here in the northeast we’re blessed with lots of pine, maple, oak and apple, and I’d be more than surprised if the home you live in doesn’t benefit from all four. More tropical climates enjoy mahogany, teak, olive, dates, fig, orange, grapefruit and banana. Ever use any of those?
So, yup, I love trees, and am happy the Capital Region has them in abundance. And I love wood. The beauty of the grain, the comforting feel and the aroma of freshly cut wood. And I love the sounds that wood can make, not only musical instruments, but the unmistakable sound of a Louisville Slugger cracking a baseball over the left field fence. (So much more satisfying than the metallic “tink” of an aluminum bat!)
Discovering what’s possible
From my days as a kid, I have built countless things of wood – from model boats and airplanes to book shelves in woodshop class. In later years, I built lean-tos and tree forts, later still came theatre scenery, a playhouse for my daughter, a 10-foot rowing dinghy, and so on. But more recently, I’ve been discovering what things might be lurking inside the wood, waiting to come out. And just as there are nearly an infinite number of things that can be built of wood, there are all kinds of things to be found within the wood.
In the interest of “full disclosure,” let it be said that I am very much a rookie in the realm of wood carving. There are wood carvers in the Capital Region who make my amateur efforts seem like those of a kindergartener bringing home a craft project for mom to praise and display. Nevertheless, the learning and doing are enjoyable. While the process in the learning curve is still superior to the product, I get great satisfaction in discovering something inside a piece of wood that wants to be found. The hobby is peaceful, relaxing, rewarding and a terrific stress-reliever.
I recommend the craft to anyone looking for an activity that returns you to the basics and involves wood chips instead of microchips or technology of any kind. Carving transports you back to a simpler time and connects you with long-forgotten roots.
What you’ll need
People have been carving for centuries with nothing more than a knife, a chisel and a piece of wood. That’s about as inexpensive and low-tech as anything can be. Gray-haired grandfathers have whittled and carved on porches and old sailors have carved on the decks of square-riggers longer than any of us have been on this earth. And they’ve done it with only a little imagination and a pocket knife.
However, if you’d like to start with better odds of success, forego the pocket knife in favor of a selection of knives, chisels and gouges made expressly for wood carving. Even a basic assortment of X-acto knives and chisels will give you an “edge”. The single most important technical factor is sharpness. Your knives must, I say again, must, be very sharp. The sharpness of your tools is essential for efficiency and quality work and also for the safety of your precious flesh. Dull edges give ragged cuts in your work and can easily slip off the wood and into you. And no one likes blood-stained wood carvings. I often wear a special Kevlar glove on one hand.
As with anything else, carvers can and do spend heaps of money on more advanced tools and technologies. High-speed rotating tools such as Dremel, routers, electric saws, grinders, sanders, ad infinitum. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the point is they are not required. As proof, just take a look at the astonishing carvings made throughout history long before the application of electricity. Those artists created more exquisitely beautiful work than I could ever do with all the technological wizardry available today. The art is not in the tools, it is in the artist.
A freelance writer, three of Ed. Lange’s plays were finalists for national Audie Awards, in 2000, ’05, and ’07, and one of the three won.